Why can African coffees be so difficult to source and maintain? There are companies out there that specialize in only offering coffees from Africa and yet, especially in the United States, those companies seem far and few between. Firelight has almost always had something from Africa available, but often just one or two offerings at any given time. There are a few challenges in sourcing consistently from Africa and some unique partnerships that we hope will help to overcome those challenges.
What makes African Coffee Special
What makes African coffees so great anyway? With the exception of Ethiopia, much of East Africa grows only a few primary varieties of Arabica coffee. One well-known variety is called SL-34. It is the primary coffee found in Kenya, which gives Kenyan coffee such a distinct taste profile, and it is found in abundance in Rwanda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda, among other places. This variety can produce some truly spectacular coffee, however, it is not completely disease resistant and, since the variety is so widely spread, these plant diseases can be detrimental when they arrive.
Much of East Africa also has very similar processing methods. The coffee is washed thoroughly and dried on ‘African Beds’, which is a kind of raised bed made from a porous, screen-like, material that allows air to pass all around the bean. This has been very successful for many years and creates a top-notch product. Yet, because this method is so prevalent, many places in Africa do not yet utilize the unique flavor opportunities brought by varying processing methods. In fact, because of the similar variety and processing methods many East African coffees carry similar tasting notes – anecdotally many of the coffees we have sampled recently at Firelight have displayed strong lime and zest notes, which can be very pleasant additions to the cup (but not always).
Lastly, we in the United States suffer a geographic disadvantage. We are one of the furthest landmasses away from Africa. This causes shipping costs to increase which means that normal or average coffees from Africa are often quite expensive. That also means that exemplary coffees, when not shipped to Europe or Asia, can be exorbitantly expensive.
All of this is not to say that every African coffee is the same, too expensive, and not worth sourcing. Generally, we just need to have a little more patience. This year we feel that patience has been rewarded with two different African offerings that have brought some of the best out of Africa to ATL. Our Rwandan coffee is unlike many from the region, being a naturally processed, fruit-forward offering. From the Intango washing station, sourced through Keffa Coffee (who sources our year-round Yirgacheffe Ethiopian coffee), this coffee is sure to delight African coffee lovers and give a new twist on something that seems to be available on a thousand hills. We are also bringing back a favorite from last year from the Democratic Republic of Congo, sourced through our friends at Mighty Peace Coffee. Umoja, sourced from a different washing station but the same province as last year, brings all of the light grape and sharp clove and cinnamon flavors as our offering last year.
Enjoy Africa while we have it. We won’t give up on finding the best the continent has to offer.